The Reds clung on to upset defending champions the Highlanders for their first win in 2016, clinching a 28-27 thriller at Suncorp Stadium.
Second place playing 17th seemed an obvious mismatch except the Reds tore up the script initially, building up a 28-6 lead in the second half before the Highlanders hit back.
Tries in the first half from Liam Gill, Nick Frisby and Samu Kerevi put the Reds in a healthy position. But the Highlanders were never likely to lie down, and had two scores disallowed in the second half before recording three thanks to Aaron Smith, Malakai Fekitoa and Lima Sopoaga. However they couldn’t complete what would have been a remarkable comeback, as the Reds desperately held them out.
Coming off their bye week the Reds looked full of running, getting the best out of the outstanding Kerevi by putting the ball into the hands of the giant 22-year-old as often as possible during the early stages.
Kerevi’s direct running combined with the soft hands of Karmichael Hunt transformed one of the least effective attacks in Super Rugby into a force, running in three first-half tries in comfortably the Reds’ best performance of the year as the Highlanders missed 28 tackles in the first 40 minutes alone.
Having the Wallabies flanker Gill fit again on the openside has been a resounding boost for the 2011 champions and it was he who opened the scoring with a try in the second minute. Good work from Nick Frisby put Gill away in the corner as he shrugged off a challenge from Patrick Osborne.
A Highlanders response was almost instant, except Rob Thompson was unable to haul in an Aaron Smith pass from a long-range attack.
The hosts were more clinical, doubling their try tally as they continually crossed the advantage line, this time Kerevi releasing Eto Nabuli down the touchline to set up Nick Frisby to score.
Lima Sopoaga’s second penalty closed the gap on the scoreboard to just six points before Jake McIntyre responded with a well-taken drop goal to make it 15-6.
The Reds though continued to find space in a frantic final ten minutes to the first half, that man Kerevi finishing off a move starting by Hunt’s take under the high ball and consequent offload.
Freed up down the touchline, Kerevi stepped his way around Highlanders full-back Matt Faddes, starting for the injured Ben Smith, before diving over in the corner.
McIntyre converted and could have added more points with a long-range effort shortly before the interval, but his kick drifted wide as the Reds headed down the tunnel ahead 22-6.
A sharp response from the visitors was expected but Shane Christie’s score was ruled out after he was offside infront of Osborne when the winger kicked ahead.
Instead the Reds extended their lead with a McIntyre penalty, won after hard work at the breakdown by Andrew Ready.
The Highlanders must have been questioning their luck after another possible score, this time for Sopoaga, was chalked off for a neck roll at a previous ruck, with the Reds instead going back upfield and knocking over another three points from McIntyre after Josh Hohneck went offside.
Holding such a comfortable lead, and sniffing that first win of the season, the Reds began to go into their shell allowing the Highlanders to hit back with some swagger.
Set up from a five-metre lineout, Liam Squire’s blindside burst drew in the last man to free up Aaron Smith for a score in the corner, Sopoaga converting to make it 28-13.
Two quick scores then flipped the game on its head, Fekitoa battering his way over from close range before Sopoaga went coast to coast after an interception on defence, the fly-half winning the footrace and converting his own score brilliantly from the touchline to make it 28-27.
Ayumu Goromaru had a chance with the penalty to settle things down for the Reds but couldn’t land the kick, setting up a frantic finish after Osborne’s line break had the Highlanders in the Reds half, but the hosts did enough to finally secure that elusive first win of the year.
REDS – 28
Tries : Liam Gill (2), Nick Frisby (15), Samu Kerevi(34)
Penalties : Jake McIntyre (44,51)
Drops : Jake McIntyre (24)
Cons : Jake McIntyre (16,35)
HIGHLANDERS – 27
Tries : Aaron Smith(58),Malakai Fekitoa(68),Lima Sopoaga(70)
Penalties : Lima Sopoaga (7,22)
Cons : Lima Sopoaga (60,68,72)
Reds: 15 Karmichael Hunt 14 Chris Feauai-Sautia, 13 Samu Kerevi, 12 Anthony Fainga’a, 11 Eto Nabuli, 10 Jake McIntyre, 9 Nick Frisby, 8 Jake Schatz, 7 Liam Gill, 6 Hendrik Tui, 5 Rob Simmons, 4 Cadeyrn Neville, 3 Greg Holmes, 2 Andrew Ready, 1 James Slipper (c)
Replacements: 16 Saia Fainga’a, 17 Sef Fa’agase, 18 Sam Talakai, 19 Ben Matwijow, 20 Curtis Browning, 21 Scott Gale, 22 Sam Greene, 23 Ayumu Goromaru
Highlanders: 15 Matt Faddes, 14 Jack Wilson, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Rob Thompson, 11 Pat Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Liam Squire, 7 Shane Christie (c), 6 Luke Whitelock, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Mark Reddish, 3 Siosiua Halanukonuka, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Ross Geldenhuys, 18 Josh Hohneck, 19 Tom Franklin, 20 Dan Pryor, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Hayden Parker, 23 Jason Emery
Date: Saturday, April 9
Venue: Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
Assistant Referees: Paul Williams (New Zealand), Jordan Way (Australia)
TMO: George Ayoub (Australia)